Buckle in folks, this is going to be a long one. Also spoilers ahead as well.
I got some nostalgia goggles for this game, I'm not going to deny it. Ocarina of Time was my first exposure to the franchise but the Wind Waker (And Twilight Princess) are both also extremely meaningful to me. Nintendo can somehow create magic that few other companies can achieve. Over the years and after playing the HD port, I came to the conclusion that the Wind Waker was my favorite of those three. It's been roughly a year since I've played a Zelda game and 6 years since I've played this game so I decided to revisit this classic once again to see if it's held up. I believe it does but that does not mean I recognize its faults, it's definitely not a perfect game. It's nearly 20 years old, so it's bound to have some jank in it. And I will mention the rushed development cycle too. Despite this, I found the game to still be charming, inventive, and some of Nintendo at its best. I'll break down the game into parts, to analyze each and every part. I will be covering the HD port so I won't mention the original much.
Presentation and Graphics: It was a rude awakening for Nintendo, when the Wind Waker was first shown at E3. After the more realistic and gritty Ocarina and Majora's Mask, the style of the Wind Waker threw everyone off. To be fair, I doubt anyone would've expected this direction. At the time of release, many fans dismissed the art style, thinking it was too kiddy and silly looking. Thankfully, that impression has mostly gone away because people realized how great the art style is. To this day, it holds up extremely well, better than most games from the time. The stylized graphics easily hide its age and make it timeless. The varied expressions and animations are incredibly charming and beautiful at the same time. Link's goofy expressions and the cartoony squish and squash make it feel like an animation come to life. The particle effects, in particular, are impressive, and Nintendo knew it. The ocean and weather effects are beautiful and give the Wind Waker a unique and memorable look.
- For some smaller negatives, the animations are mostly good but there's the occasional poor looping or awkward movement during cutscenes. It's not immersion breaking but it can be distracting. The framerate is normally fine but lots of explosions or particle effects can cut it down tremendously. Since this is on the Wii U, roughly as powerful as the PS3, this is not acceptable. It doesn't happen too often but when it does, it doesn't look good.
The Story: The Wind Waker has easily my favorite story in the franchise. It's quite simple but done very effectively. Charming, emotional, and heartwarming…this is what the Wind Waker is about. Similar themes about the hero's journey and destiny are there like in the previous games, but the Wind Waker also focuses on its own themes. Link just wants to save his sister this time, a simple motivation but very relatable. Along the way, he meets friends, learns to be a hero, and saves the day. Again, it's quite simple but done effectively and earnestly. The story's main theme is the "old vs the new" and the story does a great job at this. The Great Sea is above old Hyrule, the one we know from Ocarina and the other games. The old races we know have evolved, like the Zora's to the Rito and the Kokiri to the Koroks. The Great Sea is a much different society than the one we know from previous games. Even our characters are different with Link being a bumbling kid from an ocean village and Zelda is a pirate. This is contrasted with Ganondorf and The King, who have notably different looking proportions and attire. Both are bound to old Hyrule, and affect the world above because of this. Ganondorf's obsession with old Hyrule leads to him doing anything to bring it back and goes crazy after losing, hoping to snuff out the future of the new world by killing the protagonists. The King realizes the need to move on and gives the new world a chance to live. The ending in general is Nintendo's best ending in my opinion and ends the game on a very high note.
The Characters: These are also done very well. This Link is easily the best Link in the franchise. He has a lot of expressions and actual personality traits. He's just a bumbling kid that makes mistakes but learns to grow up and be a hero. Tetra is a different Zelda, being sassy and rough around the edges. She and Link have great chemistry and bounce off another in cutscenes. It's really quite a shame though when Tetra just does nothing when she turns into Zelda. This is by far the most disappointing part of the story and leaves a sour spot in the second half of the game. At least let her hang out on your boat or something! Zelda is partly wasted in this story because of this choice. Thankfully she comes back around near the end but a lot of missed potential with her character.
This Ganondorf is the best villain in the series by far. He doesn't show up much to be fair and occasionally spouts cliche dialogue, but I appreciate everything else about him. The game does a good job of making him feel like an all-powerful force of nature. His actions affect nearly everywhere in the story, such as destroying Greatfish Isle and his monsters scouring the land. He's still the old villain we know from Ocarina but he's noticeably more reserved and thoughtful this time. What seals the deal is the ending, where Ganondorf actually reflects on the past. He rants about the Gods destroying Hyrule and admits how much he covets Hyrule. It's the only time we see Ganondorf show a little vulnerability. Other than him, the King is a suitable companion and has a great part in the ending. Makar and Medli, and their sage counterparts are very likable characters, maybe not particularly deep, but very charming. Overall the cast is filled with colorful and memorable characters even to this day.
The Overworld and side content: The Wind Waker is essentially a prototype open-world game. At a certain point, you can explore in pretty much any direction. There are 49 different islands, big octos, sea platforms, mini caves, submarines, mini-games, and side quests to keep you busy. Some people don't like this overworld, and I can kind of see why. Most of the content is rather brief and doesn't take long. Your rewards are either heart pieces or rupees, so there's not a whole variety of rewards and you really don't need most of them. The game also has a problem with gating content. Some islands you can't even interact with if you don't have the proper item, which can make it feel annoying to backtrack. With the slow travel speed too, the overworld and content aren't the best. That being said, I do enjoy exploring the world. I feel like there's enough content to have some fun with. It might not be all worth it or to 100% it but I do feel a sense of the satisfaction of discovery and exploration. Overall, the freedom of the overworld is a nice and relaxing way to spend time in between the dungeons. I think it's the best 3D Zelda overworld other than BotW's, or at least it's a step in the right direction.
I will mention the sidequests briefly and they're pretty good! A lot of them add flavor to Windfall and they're decent puzzles within themselves. The trading side quest and Orca's minigame suck though, no hesitation in saying that. Windfall as a town is not as good as Clock Town from Majora's Mask but it's better than any town in Ocarina or Twilight Princess. It's quite small but there's enough there to keep the player returning well into the second half of the game.
The Combat: The Wind Waker has probably my favorite combat in the series. Is it too easy? Yes, and I will admit that it should be harder. Maybe playing on hero mode your first playthrough is the only way to get some sort of challenge. But nearly all Zelda games are easy in terms of combat anyways. Wind Waker's combat however is still satisfactory and fun. Link has access to a few basic combos that work well and feels gratifying to pull off. The game has a simple parry system that you can use too. It's fairly easy to time but it's not as useful in large crowds of enemies. One thing in particular I like is the effectiveness of your items. Nearly every item can be used in combat which isn't true for most of the other games. The bow can stun enemies easily, the bow can pick off far away foes, fire and ice arrows have obvious effects, the hammer can whack enemies all over the place, etc.
One particular example of this is the Stalfos enemy. You can just wack it with your sword but it's much easier to get hit this way. You have to chase it's head around after collaping it's body and there's a chance you'll fail and have to redo part of the fight. However, using a bomb instantly collapses it, the boomerang can stun the head, and the hammer instantly kills the head. There's also some great attention to detail as well. The enemies in this game will run to pick up weapons if they dropped them and they can even hit each other. Link can also pick up enemy weapons to use them himself, which is a neat touch. It's these little interconnected systems with the items is what makes the combat fun to experiment with. It's obviously not the most complex or hardest combat I've seen, but it's quite fun overall.
The Dungeons: The Wind Waker only sports roughly 6 dungeons in the game. You also have the forsaken fortress but that one is short and doesn't follow the same format as the others. Admittedly, the dungeons aren't impressive in this game, at least compared to the other 3D games besides BotW. They're…fine I guess but forgettable overall. The first two in particular are rather easy and simple, even for the early part of a Zelda game. The Tower of the Gods is a bit better (and looks cooler) but could've gone a bit more in terms of puzzle and spatial awareness difficultly. I can say the same for the Earth and Wind dungeons. These two do have the partner mechanic which is neat but I still feel like they could've pushed it a bit more. The last is Ganon's tower, which the first half is just a lame retread and the second half is sweet but short. The Wind Waker's dungeons aren't terrible but they're weaker than they should be, unfortunately.
The Bosses: The bosses are similar in that they're…fine. Gohma has a neat puzzle idea with Valoo's tail but that's about it. Kalle Demos is boring and forgettable (the secret spring water trick is awesome though). Gohdan is alright but nothing special. The Helmeroc King has great atmosphere but is a bit too simple. Jalhalla is decent, he has a neat twist where he'll mess with your controls and he splits into multiple ghosts. Molgera is also decent but also nothing too special. The only boss that stands out is Puppet Ganon at the end for being more challenging and having multiple phases. Ganondorf is also pretty cool and is a decent test for your swordfighting. Like the dungeons, the bosses aren't bad but they leave something to be desired.
The Items: Not too much to say here. The Wind Waker is surprisingly conservative with new items, with the grappling hook, deku leaf, and titular Wind Waker filling that role. However, I don't mind this because nearly all the items are used to great effect. The grappling hook can steal items from enemies for example, the deku leaf is used often and it can help Link travel around quicker, the bow is the bow, the hammer can wail enemies, etc. The only one that doesn't really work is the hookshot because it feels redundant with the grappling hook. More new items would've been nice but I appreciate that the Wind Waker makes sure all your items are useful, compared with many of the other 3D Zelda's.
The Pacing: This is rather specific but I have to bring it up. The Wind Waker is unfortunately where the 3D Zelda games started having poor pacing. This game masks it better than Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword but it's still apparent. Before you can actually explore the overworld, you have to go throught the tutorial on Outset, sneak through the entire Forsaken Fortress, buy a sail at Windfall, do the first dungeon and do the whole second dungeon (Out of 6 mind you!) before you can explore the overworld. The game starts off very linear but then completely drops the training wheels and allows you to go anywhere around the 1/3rd mark. I don't even know why it does this because there shouldn't be any reason to stop you from exploring the world after you get the sail. It's unnecessary gating that harms the flow of the game. And yes, I gotta bring up the Triforce Quest. Truthfully, I don't mind this segment that much because I like exploring around the land. But I can't deny how pace-breaking it is. You can actually do a good amount of it as the story goes along but the game does a poor job of telling you the importance of this quest or pushing you to do it. If you didn't do any of it before the Wind Temple, you gotta spend around 2 hours trying to progress. It's definitely one of the low points of the game.
In the original game, a major issue was the slow sailing speed of your boat. I would complain about this more but if you go after the Swift Sail immediately in the HD version, it's not much of a problem. But it was a big enough issue at the time for me to mention it.
Rushed Development Cycle: Here's where I address the elephant in the room. The Wind Waker was rushed and you can tell in many parts. It's not apparent in the first half of the game, but as soon as you get the Master Sword, that's when you begin to notice that things feel missing. There's only two dungeons at this point before the final boss, you get two other items from small mini dungeons, Tetra just disappears from the story, and the Triforce hunt adds some serious padding. The second half of the game is brief and rough around the edges compared to say, Ocarina. Personally, it didn't bother me that much since I know what to expect, but a new player might be disappointed at how it sort of slopes a bit downward until the ending.
The Music: It's a Zelda game, of course, it's going to have an amazing soundtrack. Thankfully the Wind Waker delivers on all fronts. It's not my favorite soundtrack in the series but there are still some incredible pieces to be sure. The
is one of the most beautiful tracks in all of gaming, the iconic
is a classic, and
is a tearjerker. The dungeon and boss music isn't that noteworthy (Besides Molgera) but nearly everything else is great.
Alright, I think that just about covers most of the game, and this review is getting long enough as is. Is the Wind Waker a perfect game? Nope. The bosses and dungeons could've been more, the Great Sea could've used a bit better content, and the pacing needs some work. But the other positives of the game manage to make the Wind Waker such a great experience. The combat is fantastic, the Great Sea manages to scratch that itch for exploration, the items are done well, the game looks and sounds amazing, and the story is the best in the series. After playing through it once again, I believe the game has held up very well and is likely to please even newcomers to this day. I do wish that it wasn't rushed and the full potential of this game could've been realized but I'll take the Wind Waker for what it is. It's a rough, but beautiful entry for this legendary franchise.
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